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Toilet Paper as Terror Management

Photograph by Trudi Lynn Smith

The toilet paper aisle at my local grocery store was the first to go barren. Similar scenes of scatalogical scarcity are now the norm across North America as consumers prepare for months of physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. You can find footage online of shoppers fighting over the last roll, and The New York Times recently reported on a toilet paper shipment requiring police escort. It is peculiar that in the early days of this crisis, a pooping accessory took priority over food. Survival instincts appear low in late capitalism.

Fortunately, there is a body of social psychology that helps explain the collective impulse to put our heads in our asses in this moment of genuine crisis, and it’s called “Terror Management Theory (or TMT). TMT is rooted in the work of Ernest Becker, who won a Pulitzer for his 1973 book The Denial of Death. According to Becker, the intense existential fear caused by the reality of death compels us to psychologically buffer ourselves with fantasies of supremacy that compensate for the overwhelming powerlessness most of us feel in the face of mortality.

The illusions of human supremacy, white supremacy, male supremacy, and class supremacy are, for Becker, all shaped by death denial. “The real world is simply too terrible to admit,” he writes in The Denial of Death; “it tells [humans] that [they are] small trembling animal[s] who will decay and die. Illusion changes all this, makes [humans] seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some way.”1 Protecting ourselves from the terror of mortality with fantasies of supremacy is dangerous for others and, obviously, irrational—death will still come. Yet according to Becker, it is what we regularly do to survive the idea of death, if not real death itself.

Since the early 1990s, terror management researchers have been experimentally testing Becker’s theories. Although a recent canonical TMT experiment did fail a replication effort, to date, over 500 experiments in 25 countries have consistently supported his account of how fear of death shapes human behavior. It is clear that continued study of terror management is of great importance.

Our Real Life Experiment

The COVID-19 pandemic is a real-life terror management experiment. In the lab versions, a test group is reminded of their mortality—either with explicit or subliminal reminders of death—and then tracked for how they respond to different situations or written statements. In recent weeks we have all been subject to constant death reminders as we read local and international news of the virus’ spread, crowding young and old into underfunded hospital systems, causing unnecessary death (with the elderly and immuno-compromised especially vulnerable, along with frontline, often racialized workers in health care, grocery stores, delivery…). The phrase “flattening the curve” is a euphemism for slowing the kill rate given the limited supply of hospital beds and ventilators. These are anxious times.

So why in the midst of this genuine panic did North American consumers turn first, en masse, to toilet paper? Part of the answer may simply be the social contagion of seeing depleted aisles and joining the stampede (this depletion aggravated by supply chain delays). But it wasn’t rice, nuts, or oranges that people snapped up first; it was toilet paper. From a terror management perspective, two-ply is an understandable balm because, along with toilet training in general, it serves to distinguish us from animality. From TP to bidets, we manage our excrement carefully, seeking to distance ourselves from the decay and disgust many of us read into it.

We believe that we are not animals, not poop anarchists (like my golden doodle for example): We are civilized! At a time when industrial human societies are being ground to a halt by a microscopic more-than-human force, it makes sense that we’d cling to primary and visceral cultural reminders of our human exceptionalism. We are not powerless in the face of earthly forces such as disease, death, or “calls of the wild”—we wipe.

The Comforting (and Destructive) Illusion of Human Supremacy

Numerous TMT experiments have explored the link between death-fear and attachments to human supremacy. For example, one study found that death reminders increased participant support for the killing of animals. According to the researchers: “The idea that humans are different from and superior to other animals is a fundamental part of most worldviews, and this is certainly true of the mainstream American view.”

COVID-19 should tame illusions of human supremacy. And indeed, our survival and thriving as a species depend on human cultures—especially high-consuming Euro-American ones—transforming our relationships with the more-than-human world into mutually beneficial ones.

The animal holocaust in the recent Australian wildfires (nearly a billion individuals killed) is partly a product of fossil fuel companies treating our precious atmosphere—without which earthly life would be nil—as an emissions dump.

Climate change is also being accelerated by the felling of forests. Given the recent run on toilet paper, it is worth noting that TP is a major driver of global deforestation. U.S. Americans are the biggest buyers. Even in simpler, pre-pandemic times, they accounted for 20% of global consumption while only comprising 4% of world population. Paper companies that use virgin wood when alternatives are available—such as Kirkland (Costco’s house brand)—are literally flushing forests down the toilet.

Clinging to toilet paper in this time of crisis is not merely a cultural curiosity, it is also accelerating key drivers of future pandemics. Felling trees for paper product, or to make way for animal agriculture, or to facilitate oil and mineral extraction, all encroach on ecosystems, making it easier for zoonotic viruses like COVID-19 to jump from wildlife to domesticated animals and then to humans.

You’d think that runaway climate change and killer pandemics would force a rethink of capitalist extractivism and the illusions of human supremacy at its core. But TMT warns of a darker likelihood: that these fear-inducing events will lead people to double down on their illusions of supremacy, with morbid socio-ecological effects. The toilet paper panic is exemplary.

What Is to Be Done?

Rapprochement with the more-than-human world requires new cultural orientations towards death. Death is not alien; it is fundamental to earth processes. To deny death is to deny life. Capitalist destruction of earth systems is that denial materialized.

In the same year that Ernest Becker published The Denial of Death, Dakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr.—who is an intellectual inspiration for contemporary Indigenous resurgence movements such as the water protectors at Standing Rock—wrote that “[r]ather than fearing death tribal religions see it as an affirmation of life’s reality.” Deloria Jr. continued: “The Indian ability to deal with death was a result of the much larger context in which Indians understood life. Human beings were an integral part of the natural world and in death they contributed their bodies to become the dust that nourished the plants and animals that had fed people during their lifetime.”2

For Deloria Jr., Indigenous approaches to mortality are linked to non-supremacist worldviews that position humans as fundamentally integrated with the natural world, feeding other life forms upon their physical death.

Arikara scholar Michael Yellow Bird has written about rituals that his community used to “rehearse for death.” In one such ritual, a member of the tribe would be chosen to represent death (e.g. dressing up and painting their bodies). They would leave the village and prepare themselves in isolation to return as death incarnate. As the ritual closed, death would disappear into the hills. Elders would then talk with fellow community members about how the encounter impacted them.

It is vital that non-Indigenous people learn from Indigenous ontologies and ceremonies without stealing knowledge in the same way that land has been violently stolen in settler colonial contexts such as the U.S. and Canada. Yellow Bird presents one possible way forward: He sees deep resonances between Indigenous ritual and Buddhist-inspired mindfulness practices that are increasingly available in the Euro-Americas.

Meditating on Death

A recent TMT study shows how mindfulness meditation can reduce defensive responses to death-fear and compensatory illusions of supremacy. The study goes even further, pinpointing the mechanism that likely allows for reduced defensiveness: the conscious experiencing of death-fear. According to previous TMT studies, defensive responses to death arise due to thought suppression. Instead of directly facing death-anxiety, people tend to repress the fear into their unconscious. There, the felt powerlessness that death-fear can produce is alchemized into comforting illusions of supremacy. This particular study found that meditation halted thought suppression, allowing death-fears to be experienced consciously. This conscious experiencing appears to have been a key factor facilitating the non-defensive response to reminders of death.

Meditation alone will not undo death-anxiety or compensatory illusions of human supremacy and its deadly material effects. For mindfulness to support a new cultural orientation towards mortality in the Euro-Americas, it needs to be embedded in collective movements and institutions capable of culture change.

A Dream…

I have worked to limit my toilet paper panic in recent days, but I remain troubled by mortality. Buddhist meditation has helped, but I continue to struggle. As an asthmatic, I’ve noticed my lungs constrict in fear when reading COVID-19 stories about 40-somethings like me needing ventilators to continue breathing.

I’ve found succor in a dream I had two years ago when rampant wildfires darkened Vancouver Island skies. In the dream, I watched a bomb detonate some metres away. Time slowed down as the flames flew forward. I knew it was my end. I knelt down and placed my palm on the earth. In that moment I was home, at peace. The flames consumed me.

It is notoriously hard to die in a dream. This was no exception. There was a scene change and I was suddenly in some elsewhere, both relieved that the threat had passed, and disappointed that my union with primordial energy had ended. “And this too shall pass.” Even endings end. The show goes on. Energy transforms.

Why does this dream comfort me? Because death will come. Hopefully a long time from now. But it is a part of my life. Acknowledging the reality of death means accepting myself and this earth from which I come. This acknowledgement is not morbid; on the contrary, it promotes more life. Just like shit itself, compost for new growth.


James K. Rowe is an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria. He is currently writing a book called Radical Mindfulness.


Photography by Trudi Lynn Smith


Return to contents page of Practice, Resilience, and Compassion in the Time of COVID-19.


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Notes

  1. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1973), 33.
  2. Vine Deloria Jr., God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (New York: Putnam Publishing Group), 174.